Funding woes hit Portland homeless camp Right 2 Dream Too
Mack McKenzie Sr. has found a refuge from the wilderness.
His bed is made. In his Bible there is a bookmark, at First Corinthians. Two child-sized milk cartons, one chocolate, one plain, have been squared up neatly along the edges of his desk. The radio whispers a classic rock song.
It's not much, but it's home.
"We work together, and we take care of one another," says McKenzie, who lives in one of the 15 huts that make up Right 2 Dream Too, the self-guided homeless community that now sits between the Moda Center and a grain elevator on the east bank of the Willamette River.
While the novel coronavirus halved the number of overnighters allowed to share three communal sleeping tents, now hosting about 100 people every 24 hours, those living in the wooden tiny homes keep the camp humming.
"I am loving life and this is a good place to channel that love," says Derinda Sikes, 47, a newcomer to the village.
It costs only a pittance to run R2DToo. Its budget is just $30,000 per year, compared with the $175,000 taken solely from Portland city coffers each month for three new emergency outdoor shelters, unofficially known as Creating Conscious Communities with People Outside, or C3PO.
A budget document shows the majority of the money, $150,000 monthly, goes to JOIN, the social services nonprofit in charge of the camps. JOIN has hired some 50 people, many from the unhoused community, to perform security, maintenance and other tasks for $20 an hour. Operating expenses — such as bathroom, shower, hand-washing and garbage facilities — cost approximately $24,000 a month.
But as the rag-tag volunteers who run R2DToo have resisted pressure to professionalize, they've also struggled with a consistent problem: how to pay for it.
"We've gotten down to almost no money more times than I'd like to count," said R2DToo board member Grant Swanson. "We're scrappy. We always have been."
A coterie of local nonprofits backing R2DToo pinned their hopes for a stable funding stream on the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services, which funds organizations providing homelessness services through a process known as "requests for programmatic qualifications," or RFPQ.
The nonprofits took it on the chin when their application was rejected in November.
"It's super frustrating," said Sarah Heinicke, executive director of Lloyd EcoDistrict. "This is a known quantity. We know that it works, and we know it's a good model."
"R2DToo is an even better model now than it was four months ago. It's probably better to be outdoors during a pandemic," adds Adam Lyons, executive director of Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, who wrote the RFPQ application. "We'll keep supporting Right 2 Dream Too however we can."
The groups passed the hat and raised $13,000 internally. They're hoping the community will contribute the rest via a GoFundMe campaign.
Long-time supporter and outgoing City Commissioner Amanda Fritz chipped in an additional $9,000 in one-time office funds to keep the lights on and to buy emergency supplies.
"In these unprecedented times, the work of Right 2 Dream Too in providing safe sleep to the most vulnerable residents of Portland is more crucial than ever," Commissioner Fritz wrote to the camp in March. "In alignment with Mayor Wheeler's direction, I ask R2DToo's board (to) reach out directly to the Joint Office of Homeless Services to pursue longer-term funding opportunities."
The joint office says the camp's qualifications application scored too low and left some questions unanswered. Officials note that their emergency camps, prompted by the pandemic, house about 135 people and provide a wider array of social and mental health services than R2DToo, which can simply eject troublesome members from their community.
"We value the shelter and safe sleep Right 2 Dream Too has been able to provide for hundreds of people a month these past many years, and the good relationships they've built with their neighbors," said joint office spokesman Denis Theriault. "And we've long been open to working with and supporting them in a more formal way, through a contract."
Data collection is another concern.
In order to remain eligible for federal funding, Multnomah County is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to track those accessing homeless services through a software known as the Homeless Management Information System. Service providers who receive public funds through the joint office face the same requirement.
But outside of pocket checks for weapons and contraband, the villagers who democratically run R2DToo don't keep records for their overnight guests.
Nightly collection of names, ages and Social Security numbers of guests in computer logbooks would be a significant ask, given that R2DToo has no paid staff, an all-volunteer board and currently pulls its Wi-Fi network from across the river.
The Mayor's Office and homelessness officials met with R2DToo last week to discuss providing technical assistance to the camp, though nothing is settled yet.
Board member Swanson said he is worried that data collection would defeat the purpose of a low-barrier shelter, and the bottom-up nature of R2DToo's management style.
"Part of it is our stubbornness to not become a professional nonprofit in the ways they wanted us to be," he said.
Portlanders could be forgiven for losing track of Right 2 Dream Too's complicated history.
The rest area sprang up at a bustling spot near the Chinatown gate at West Burnside Street and Fourth Avenue in 2011 — sparking pushback from neighbors, lawsuits and a relocation rigamarole worthy of house-hunting cable television.
After various proposals to uproot the village from downtown — to the Central Eastside, Pearl District, or underneath the Broadway Bridge — went up in smoke, the saga ended at 999 N. Thunderbird Way in 2017.
R2DToo's board members have never forgotten then-Mayor Charlie Hales's much-publicized deal to spend $846,000 in public dollars to buy or rent the camp a permanent home in 2014. That never happened.
The board believes the money is tied up by a 2018 lawsuit regarding an empty lot that was considered and ultimately nixed as R2DToo's replacement home years earlier.
Records show the case, filed by East Side Plating after City Hall voted to sell the land, has been heard in circuit and federal court — where Judge Michael Simon dismissed it, citing jurisdictional issues and failure to state a claim. The case awaits settlement or a verdict at the Oregon Court of Appeals.
"We are still under contract to sell the property, but we do not anticipate that sale closing until the litigation is finally resolved," City Attorney Tracy Reeve said.
It may not actually matter, since the ordinance in question never specifically calls out Right 2 Dream Too, promising only to spend part of the proceeds of the sale on "campsite services programming," a term even the city admits is vaguely defined.
Officials say they intend to support the camp, regardless, in part by requiring them to seek "requests for programmatic qualifications" funding as part of their rental agreement. The village's one-year lease for the city land was rolled over once again, and now sunsets in April 2021 — the same month that Portland's oft-extended housing emergency declaration is set to expire.
That would put makeshift mass shelters on a shakier foundation, at least from a land-use perspective, but the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability will propose adding an "outdoor shelter" zone to the city code as part of the Shelter to Housing Continuum project by March, 2021, according to spokeswoman Christine Llobregat.
In the meantime, residents of Right 2 Dream Too will carry on.
MacKenzie Sr. lived at R2DToo's original location, then headed to Central Oregon to work in construction for a spell, but came back when that company went out of business.
The 63-year-old applied for a job working security at C3PO, but says even tending the gate at R2DToo can be dangerous.
"It's a younger generation," he says. "They're more violent. A lot more violent."
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